Below the Line: Butler County

Middletown: Where poverty and immigration meet

The dark-eyed 6-year-old rushes into her house after school everyday, shouting, "Mommy, are you here?"

Ever since her dad disappeared, she's afraid her mom will, too.

The slim girl is only in kindergarten, but she has learned all about immigration, deportation and what it's like when a family's breadwinner is suddenly gone.

She's one of hundreds of poor children in Butler County. And in a two-square-mile area of Middletown, every single Latino child is poor by federal poverty standards.

This is where immigration and poverty meet: In public housing and trailer parks, in cramped apartments and rental homes where families are barely getting by but are often too scared to ask for help.

Lourdes Cordero sees it in the students and parents she serves through Middletown City Schools.

Tami Adams sees it in her patients at St. Raphael, the Mercy Health clinic in Hamilton that's less than 14 miles south of Middletown. The bilingual employees at the Butler County Educational Service Center see it in the children and moms they visit for Early Head Start, the federal program for poor families with pregnant women, infants and toddlers up to age 3. And the Rev. Michael Pucke sees it each Sunday in his congregation at St. Julie Billiart Catholic Parish in Hamilton.

They see men and women working hard to support their children. For the Latinos who are U.S. citizens, language and discrimination are barriers. For those who entered the country illegally, even driving a car to work or to the county welfare office poses risk to them and their children. They fear a broken tail light, speeding ticket or fender bender will start them on a path to deportation.

WCPO saw it too and because of that we agreed not to name those who are undocumented in order to protect them and their children. 

Lourdes Cordero visits with a Yaritza Cordova, 39, whose son attends Middletown schools. Emily Maxwell | WCPO 

"If they could get out of the shadows, then they would have stability in work and stability in all kinds of things," said Pucke, who speaks fluent Spanish. "These are not folks who come looking for a handout. In fact, they don't want to get into that stuff."

Most, in fact, are living better than they were in the countries they left, Pucke said, despite how tough things are for them and their kids here.

"This is a lot better," he said. "They wouldn't be here if it wasn't a lot better."

That says more about where they came from than it does about where they are now.

Here in Greater Cincinnati, thousands of families are struggling, despite the region's improving economy and lower unemployment rates.

Poverty has spread from inner city Cincinnati, Covington and Newport into suburban areas and smaller cities north and south. Across the region, nearly one of every five children lives in poverty. In Cincinnati, almost half the city's kids are poor.

The Tri-State's persistent poverty is why WCPO is focusing on the issue with ongoing reports online and on air in 2015.

Citizen Kids, Undocumented Parents

That scared six-year-old and her 11-year-old sister are in the same tenuous position as so many poor, Latino children in Butler County. They are U.S. citizens. Their parents, however, are not.

It's a life marked by risk and uncertainty.

The last time the two soft-spoken girls saw their father, he was in jail waiting to be deported.

The six-year-old of the man who was deported colors inside her Middletown rental home. Ron Fischer | WCPO

It was October 2014. He had wrecked into a mail truck while driving for work. The police discovered he was an undocumented immigrant who had skipped an immigration hearing in 2001. Immigration authorities took the man into custody before his wife could finish paying his bail. He was quickly deported.

"I miss, like, when he used to take us out after church, and he would take us to see movies and everything," the 11-year-old fifth-grader says. "Now we don't really go out that much."

The girls are both in therapy, their mom says with the help of an interpreter. 

Now, money is tight. The woman nearly drained her savings to pay a lawyer $2,500 to try to keep her husband in Middletown. She cleans houses to earn cash. Her 20-year-old stepson, who also was born in the U.S., has become the family's primary breadwinner, although he sends part of every paycheck to his mom in Mexico, too.

The girls' mom doesn't know how long they can afford to stay in their rental home. She applied for food stamps for her daughters, something they can get as citizens but never needed when their dad was here working.

She has thought about going back to Mexico. But her husband can't make any money there, and the drug violence is bad. Plus, the girls are Americans. They can't read or write in Spanish. Their home in Middletown is all they know.

"My kids don't have a future there," the mom says. "They could get killed or kidnapped. I'm thinking of them that they have a better future here."

Even though that future is anything but clear.

Where Every Child Is Poor

The need in Butler County is especially acute among Middletown's Latino families. Here, many faces of childhood poverty are the faces of immigrants. Most kids who have moms and dads here illegally are U.S. citizens who have never even visited their parents' home countries, Cordero said.

They are Middletown's children — Ohio's children. They go to school and play games and make friends. But too often they squeeze into bed with multiple family members each night and worry their parents will disappear. 

Middletown census tract

One Census tract on the southwest end of the city has a population of 2,425 people, and 15.6 percent are Latino. That's a concentration nearly four times higher than the countywide Latino population of 4.1 percent. The unemployment rate there is three times higher than the county's, and more than half the residents get food stamps, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. That's compared to the 11.9 percent of all county residents who get SNAP.

And while roughly 43 percent of all children younger than 18 in Butler County live in households with annual incomes below the federal poverty line, every child in Census tract 140 is poor, according to a WCPO analysis of the latest U.S. Census American Community Survey.

That's 148 poor Latino children living in less than two square miles bound by Elk Creek to the west and south, Ohio State Route 73 to the east and 15th Avenue to the north.

More than a third of the families living in that small area — 37.3 percent — have household incomes of $19,999 per year or less. That's a weekly income of $384 — and often far less — to cover groceries, rent, medicine, clothing and gas if the family has a car.  

A cluster of townhomes inside a government assisted living community in Middletown. Emily Maxwell | WCPO

Those who work with Latino families in Butler County know how desperate the need is — even without Census data.

Tami Adams has worked as a nurse at St. Raphael in Hamilton for 13 years. She doesn't speak Spanish. She works with interpreters to communicate with the moms and children from Hamilton and Middletown who come to the center. St. Raphael provides low-cost health care and also has a food pantry, a Santa shop for the holidays and emergency financial assistance for families whose electricity is about to be cut off or who can't pay rent for the month.

Adams meets with groups of Hispanic women to educate them about the importance of making sure they and their children eat healthy food and the higher incidence of diabetes in the Latino community.

An undocumented immigrant named Clara said Adams has given her a lot of good advice that has helped her and her three children.

"I trust her," Clara said with the help of a St. Raphael interpreter. "And the first time I came here, I saw a doctor here, and he gave me the information I wanted. They took good care of me."

Building that trust can be difficult, especially among Butler County's undocumented immigrants, Pucke said. They are always worried about being labeled illegal and sent back to a place where there is nothing for their children.

"The only document that I ever ask to see is a baptism certificate," he said.

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The bilingual Early Head Start home visitors build trust over months and years. They visit with families once a week for 90 minutes at a time, teaching moms about early childhood development, the importance of car seats and how to introduce toddlers to shapes, colors and counting.

They see a different kind of poverty. Immigrant moms keep their modest homes tidy and their kids' artwork taped to the walls. They never have bedbugs. The kids' fathers are usually in the picture. The children are always bathed. Moms make sure their kids have enough to eat, no matter how much the families are struggling. And they always show respect to the home visitors.

"They really appreciate everything that we're doing," said Julia Jerez, one of the bilingual home visitors at Butler County Educational Service Center. "The teacher is so important. They respect the teacher."

Those teachers also help families navigate complex systems that can be vexing for adults who speak little or no English.

"For me, it ends up being a lot of help with translation and getting them hooked up with English classes," said Kayla Cassidy, who is also a bilingual home visitor. "They feel so isolated sometimes. We make bridges for them to get the resources that they need."

For Erika Pelayo, those bridges meant getting her GED and getting her 3-year-old son, Rueben, enrolled in preschool.

Steps Toward Stability

Pelayo and home visitor Kaely Phillips sit on the floor during an Early Head Start home visit.

Phillips unpacks a fishing toy to help Rueben work on counting and colors, watching as Pelayo guides him.

Pelayo wiggles a toy fish against the cartoon snake on Rueben's T-shirt.

"The worm's going to eat the fishy," Pelayo says as Rueben giggles. "How many are here?"

Pelayo counts fish by fish, from one to eight, in English and Spanish.

"Erika does a great job doing both languages with him with just about everything," Phillips says.

Early Head Start home visitor Kaely Phillips stops by for a visit with Erika Pelayo and her 3-year-old son, Rueben. Emily Maxwell | WCPO

Rueben is Pelayo's fifth child and full of energy. Once he starts attending preschool, she plans to get a job. She can because she got a work permit through President Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals executive order. Her parents brought her to the U.S. from Mexico illegally when she was a baby, she says, and she grew up in Texas.

Pelayo got her GED in November and her driver's license just a few weeks ago.

She wants to bring in some extra money for times when her husband's construction work is slow. Winters can be especially lean times for the family of seven.

The driver's license offers new hope for Pelayo, but her family isn't completely at ease. Her husband is an undocumented immigrant who didn't qualify for the deferred action. He doesn't speak much English and is anxious about his status.

"It makes him worry, but everybody has to take their risks, regardless," Pelayo says.

'There's Still This Specter'

Obama's executive order, known as DACA, has been a blessing and a curse for undocumented immigrants. Those who meet the qualifications can get a work permit and Social Security card, which paves the way for a driver's license, said Adolfo Olivas, manager of the Immigration Law Project at The Legal Aid Society of Southwest Ohio.

"They don't have to be in the shadows," he said. "But there's still this specter of Uncle Sam hanging over their heads."

That's because the government now has personal information for all the DACA immigrants. If a new administration decides to reverse the executive order, the government would know where to find people to deport them, Olivas said.

"I know a lot of people are afraid," Pelayo said. "Hopefully, everything will be OK."

Erica Pelayo and her son Rueben inside their living room. Emily Maxwell | WCPO

Hope is, after all, what brought these immigrants to the United States and to Middletown. They came hoping for good jobs, good schools and a better life for themselves and their children — just like generations of immigrants before them. 

They settled in Butler County because of family or friends or because they heard about a factory that was hiring or an apartment complex that would take rent in cash. They all know about Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones, who has made national headlines with his tough stance on illegal immigrants. Still, they stay in Butler County for the schools or the work or nearby family members. In fact, Hamilton and Middletown combined represent the Tri-State's largest concentration of Hispanics, said Alfonso Cornejo, president of the Hispanic Chamber Cincinnati USA.

Family is what brought Lourdes Cordero here from Puerto Rico.

Her father moved to Middletown to live near his sister, whom he had not seen for years. Cordero and her family followed. She knew no English when she arrived 14 years ago. She had an associate's degree in computer science but couldn't find a job because she didn't speak English.

"It was a very hard struggle at the beginning because I was so frustrated," she said.

Cordero took English classes for adults through Middletown City Schools. In 2007, she began working for the school district and two years later became the liaison for Latino families. Her work extends far beyond the schools.

Moms reach out to her for help translating when they take their children to the doctor. She goes with them to the police station or the county welfare office. She started a nonprofit called Latinos Unidas de Middletown, or L.U.M., to bring the disparate Latino communities together to support each other — as well as black and white Middletown families in need. Cordero takes calls from Latino parents and students day and night. She visits their homes and refers them to people and organizations that can help them.

She wants the region to understand the stories of the Latinos in Middletown and how they are struggling.

Lost in Translation

Cordero knocks on a trailer door and is greeted with a warm smile.

A half dozen children surround the woman who lives there. A native of Mexico, she speaks no English. She has lived in the U.S. for about 10 years, in California and Texas before she, her daughter and her husband moved to Middletown to be close to his brother.

But her husband got arrested, she says with Cordero translating. She says the charge was "conspiracy" but doesn't explain more. He could be released in 2016, but he doesn't know if the authorities will deport him.

His conviction left the woman to support herself and her daughter, who is now a teenager. She earns money babysitting for three different families and gets some help from her brother-in-law and sister-in-law, who work in a book factory.

Outside the trailer where a woman who is supporting her family by babysitting the neighborhood children while her husband serves time in prison. Emily Maxwell | WCPO

For years the woman has been scraping by, but a letter from the city has her worried.

"We pay $50 a month to live in Middletown," she says. "But I got a letter that said I had to pay $500 for the taxes. If I don't pay, I could go to jail."

That's not what the letter says, though. WCPO explains to Cordero that the letter does require the woman to appear at a hearing. She owes $578.80 in overdue back taxes. But the letter states she can pay 10 percent of the total and establish a payment plan for the rest.

It's the kind of letter local governments send routinely. But it was more than the woman could understand, even with the help of Latino friends and family who know English.

She smiles when Cordero tells her what the letter means. She can stay in her home.

Cordero says she wishes the city of Middletown and Butler County would send official correspondence in Spanish and English. She understands it would cost more. But so many Latino families struggle to understand official communications, such as the letter the woman received, she says, or even communications in court.

Trying to Level the Playing Field

Cordero hears from moms who are unhappy with divorce settlements or custody arrangements that they agreed to in court because they didn't understand the proceedings, she said.

Language confusion shouldn't happen in court. Just last year, the Ohio Supreme Court implemented a rule requiring local courts to provide translators certified by the Supreme Court for defendants and witnesses who are hearing impaired or don’t speak fluent English, said Annette Lolli, court administrator for the Butler County Domestic Relations Court.

"That's really the role of the court," Lolli said. "To create an even playing field."

Judges and magistrates always ask to make sure both parties understand what's happening. Any clients who end up unhappy with the lawyers representing them should complain to the Ohio State Bar Association, Lolli said.

But many undocumented immigrants worry that any kind of complaining carries a risk.

There are factories, for example, that pay undocumented workers less than Latino immigrants who are citizens, said Melissa Aguilar, who is originally from Puerto Rico.

"If a person that doesn't have any issue with their documentation, they can get $8 an hour," she said. "You don't have no documents so I can give you $6. They're not going to complain because they're scared to do it."

Sometimes even the Latinos who are citizens won't complain about unfair treatment because they don't want to cause trouble for their undocumented co-workers, Cordero said.


Lizbeth Arce at L.U.M.'s International Night in Middletown on Friday, May 8, 2015. Emily Maxwell | WCPO

Lizbeth Arce, a citizen from Puerto Rico, said her husband worked for one factory for three years and was well paid.

"But they abused them because they had to work like 70 or 80 hours a week," she said. "After three years, he left."

Undocumented immigrants have the same rights under federal employment law as U.S. citizens, said Brennan Grayson, executive director of the Cincinnati Interfaith Workers' Center in Over-the-Rhine. But if they are fired as a result of discrimination, they don't have the right to be reinstated. That's because a 2001 U.S. Supreme Court decision determined federal immigration laws take precedence over labor laws, he said.

"Yeah, folks are mistreated. Yeah, they have a general sense that they are being treated differently, but there's a lot of uncertainty about how to enforce those rights," Grayson said. "That's where poverty comes from, in my opinion. It's very hard to have a discussion about what's work worth because of the situations that so many employees find themselves in."

Then there are immigrants like Cordero herself, professionals with skills and degrees who struggle because they don't speak English at all or well enough.

Stuck in Poverty

Yazmin Rosario moved to Middletown from Puerto Rico five years ago, hoping to build a better life for herself and her kids.

Yazmin Rosario inside her Middletown apartment. Emily Maxwell | WCPO

A nurse by training, Rosario's English isn't good enough to pass the licensing exam to work as a nurse here.

So she and three of her four children live in a small, government-subsidized townhouse. She gets by on $90 per month in cash assistance for each of her children and $640 per month in SNAP benefits. Because she and her kids are all from Puerto Rico, they all are U.S. citizens.

She has tried to get a job but feels like discrimination has worked against her. Rosario, 43, speaks some English, but is not completely fluent.

"One time, I applied for a job part-time in the school cafeteria," she says as Cordero translates. "I know the lady understood me. I asked her, 'What time can I start tomorrow?' She would never answer."

Rosario doesn't want to be poor. She's trying to improve her English so she can work as a nurse.

"I want to move from this place to live in my own house," she says. "For my kids, my dream is that they can go to the university, that they have their own professions and a good job."

For now, though, she feels stuck. That means her kids are struck too.

Strength Through Unity

It's a feeling Cordero knows from her own experience as a newcomer all those years ago. She knows scores of Latino families in and around Middletown feel it, too.

It's part of the reason she formed her nonprofit, L.U.M., three years ago.

If Latino families can get past their cultural differences – whether they are Puerto Rican, Mexican, Dominican or something else – they will find strength together, she said.

Breaking down divisions within the Latino community was the inspiration for L.U.M.'s International Night. The third annual event was May 8 at Wildwood Elementary School. There, kids and parents represented more than 10 different countries, including some from outside Latin America. There were games on the gym floor and songs in Spanish blaring from speakers on the stage. One team of dancers held flags from the Dominican Republic as they twisted and turned.

Click on the image to see photo gallery.

Long tables of food started with a pan of rice with pigeon peas, a Puerto Rican dish, on one end and finished with Mexican flan at the other end, with more than a dozen pans in between.

Cordero stood on the stage and welcomed everyone to the event.

As much as Latino families are struggling in Middletown, Cordero said she believes it is important for them to draw strength from their cultures and from each other as they work to build better lives here.

"It's very important that you remember where you came from," she tells the crowd. "Because when you forget your culture, you lose part of your identity."

For many of Middletown's poorest Latino families, after all, their cultural identities are what they value most.

For more information about how to help needy Latino families in Butler County, contact:

View childhood poverty interactive map.

Reporter Lucy May, photojournalist Emily Maxwell and data specialist Mark Nichols have spent the last five months examining the stubborn issue of childhood poverty in the Tri-State to bring WCPO readers Below The Line. This is the second in the series. You can read the first installment here.

In coming months, they will continue to introduce you to some of the region's poorest kids, their families and those working to help them.

This year-long series will be an ongoing focus for WCPO.

Design: Brian Niesz

Data: Mark Nichols

Editor: Chris Graves